When Albert Einstein Was a Holy Land Ladies Man

New documentary based on Albert Einstein’s travel diary from his visit in pre-state Israel reveals prophetic insights about Zionism - but he was most impressed by the women and Jewish laborers.

Gili Izikovich
Gili Izikovich
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Einstein and his wife Elsa (center) at a Tel Aviv ceremony in which he became the city's first honorary citizen, in 1928.
Einstein and his wife Elsa (center) at a Tel Aviv ceremony in which he became the city's first honorary citizen, in 1928. Credit: Courtesy
Gili Izikovich
Gili Izikovich

Albert Einstein, the most famous Jewish scientist in history, wrote a letter in 1929 to his friend Chaim Weizmann, an accomplished chemist who would later become Israel’s first president. But their correspondence had little to do with scientific subjects. Weizmann served then as president of the British Zionist Federation, and his friend Einstein was writing to him about the Jewish and Zionist question.

“Should we be unable to find a way to honest cooperation and honest pacts with the Arabs, then we have learned absolutely nothing during our 2,000 years of suffering and deserve all that will come to us,” he wrote, adding, “Should the Jews not learn to live in peace with the Arabs, the struggle against them will follow them for decades in the future.”

"Einstein in the Holy Land." The attitude Zionists adopt toward the Arab minority will provide the real test of their moral standards as a people, he wrote.

What seems to be a prophetic statement may be attributed to Einstein’s experience in the Holy Land. Four years previously, in early February 1923, Einstein and his wife Elsa came to the reviving Jewish Yishuv in Palestine for a historic visit. Einstein received a royal reception and the crowd sang “Here comes the messiah” in his honor, but the “messiah” was in no hurry to give in to that. He summed up his visit with succinct humor in his travel diary, which has become the basis of a documentary entitled “Einstein Be’eretz Hakodesh” (“Einstein in the Holy Land”) .

Noa Ben Hagai.Credit: David Bachar

This is director Noa Ben Hagai’s third film, and it is produced by Micha Shagrir, who was the first to show interest in the diary. Even though the diary’s existence was known to the people entrusted with Einstein’s estate, which he left in its entirety to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, it remained undiscovered and unpublished until now.

Ben Hagai explains that Einstein had almost no property apart from the intellectual property, papers and manuscripts that he left (the diary was translated and annotated by Dr. Ze’ev Rosenkranz, the former director of the archive, who even wrote his doctorate about the diary).

To fund the management of Einstein’s estate after his death in 1955, its new owners had to sell two items from it. One was the travel diary that had been written in Palestine. One way or the other, Shagrir and the head of Channel One’s documentary department, Itay Landsberg-Nevo, decided to make it into a film.

Ben Hagai, 43, a graduate of the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School, was brought in as the director and researcher. Her previous film, “Blood Relation,” was about a family mystery: the disappearance of her grandmother’s sister, who after the Six-Day War was discovered living in a refugee camp in Nablus, where she had a family, and Ben Hagai’s efforts to form a relationship with her Palestinian relatives.

“My family sighed with relief that finally I wasn’t making a movie about them,” she says with a smile. “This was purely documentary work, and it was enjoyable.”

Einstein reached pre-state Israel by train. The first station of his visit, Jerusalem, was difficult for him. Put off by the commotion, poverty and filth, he wrote a harsh description of the city’s Jews, who lived in neglect and made no attempt to change their fate. Einstein, who interpreted Zionism as research and learning, which were means to improvement, was angry over the stagnation and the sanctification of tradition.

His impressions of Jerusalem improved when he visited the location of the future Hebrew University and the new Jewish neighborhoods that were being constructed, Talpiot and Beit Hakerem. It was the first time he had seen Jews engaging in manual labor.

Genius at flirt

Hadassah Gur, wife of Edwin Samuel, son of High Commissioner Herbert Samuel, accompanied Albert and Elsa Einstein during their visit in Jerusalem. Einstein was impressed by Gur’s beauty and pleasant demeanor. Arthur Ruppin and his wife Chana also met with Einstein, who developed a relationship with the latter that may or may not have gone beyond flirtation.

“I liked finding in the diary a very personal aspect and a libido burning with desire,” Ben Hagai says. “I liked having the opportunity to peek into what went on in that superior brain when it was not engaged in cracking the secrets of the universe, but in writing stinging and funny entries about this strange place. He was excited and touched to see new, rough Jews engaged in manual labor here, but also wrote about the beautiful women he met, and also flirted with some of them while his wife Elsa was nearby.”

After five days in Jerusalem, Einstein left for his next station, Tel Aviv. He was impressed with Tel Aviv; it reminded him of Chicago. He found Haifa an appropriate refuge, particularly because of the many people who had left Germany who were living there – but, as Ben Hagai explains, he formulated his fascinating insights after he returned to his home in Berlin, and many years later, when he immigrated to the United States, and when he had to turn down Ben-Gurion’s offer to be the first president of Israel.

In a letter to his friend Ezriel Carlebach, he wrote that he would not be able to perform the duties of the office according to his conscience, and that he would have to tell the Israeli people things they “would not like to hear.”

This is the film’s turning point, where it moves from a fairly amusing story featuring cutting comments from the diary to a different tone. Einstein is discovered to be a pacifist, a humanist upset by military parades and nationalist sentiment. Einstein defined himself as a Zionist, but criticized different Zionists and a different Zionism, and signed a petition against Menachem Begin, which was made public in the U.S. when he visited there, called him a fascist and described the Herut party as the most worrisome phenomenon of the time.

“I am afraid of the inner damage Judaism will sustain – especially from the development of a narrow nationalism within our own ranks, against which we have already had to fight strongly, even without a Jewish state,” he wrote. “The two great Semitic peoples have a great common future ... The attitude we adopt toward the Arab minority will provide the real test of our moral standards as a people. A just solution of this problem and one worthy of both nations is an end no less important and no less worthy of our efforts than the promotion of the work of construction itself.”

“It was important to me to let that voice be heard,” Ben Hagai says. “His statements didn’t come out of the blue, but when he makes them many years before they came true, it really seems like a prophetic statement. I felt it was important to show his wording, his humanist, moral and universal vision that has become a rarity. He called himself a Zionist, but today some who feel that they own the term would have called him a traitor.”

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